D.C. man finds blessings in mission to help homeless

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010; B01

The digital bank clock across from Capitol Hill United Methodist Church reads 7:25 a.m. and 27 degrees when Rob Farley, congregant, lawyer and aspiring Christian, jogs up to the church's icy front landing. Waiting for him in the chilly rain are the people who have transformed his life.

Jonathan George, a joke-telling handyman from the Bronx, is stuffing into plastic trash bags the sleeping bag, two blankets and cardboard he uses for a bed. Howard James, 51, and his "lady friend," Mercedes Dessaso, 61, are just showing up after a frigid, wet night wandering near Union Station. Melvin Johnson, with a damp sweat shirt and a cane, chuckles as he says, "We are wild animals."

Farley, slender and sweaty in black running pants, bears a smile, a front-door key and the mission he has been committed to almost every morning for a year: to provide breakfast, a clean bathroom, a group prayer and some dignity to a small band of homeless men and women who view this church landing five blocks east of the U.S. Capitol as a version of home.

For Farley, the routine has given his faith a purpose, his vow to be a better person a tangible test. The 47-year-old is feeding the homeless, and it's clear that they are feeding him, if in a different way.

This was a guy who, until a few years ago, couldn't remember going to church aside from the time that, decades ago, his mother threatened to take away his Super Bowl-watching privileges if he didn't attend. A guy whose initial intention was just to end his morning jog by waking the homeless and kindly urging them to move on.

Then God happened. Or something like that.

"Either you turn your head or you engage," says Farley, a soft-spoken Tennessean who doesn't easily talk about himself.

Although some of the folks have been going to the church for many years -- either to sleep under its overhang, attend weekly meals for the homeless or participate in regular worship -- the daily breakfast began only about a year ago.

It was a confluence of two things: neighbors complaining about the sometimes-disruptive scene on the landing, and Farley's baptism and increasing fixation with living his faith.

Growing up in the Bible Belt, and seeing what he describes as religion being used in national politics as a cultural sledgehammer, left him alienated but also curious. What was going on in churches? After the 2004 presidential election, his then-wife suggested that they browse a few services. They wound up at the United Methodist church near their home on Capitol Hill.

"I didn't think the church had much to offer, so I went more as an observer," he says. "Everyone else would bow their heads, and I would be looking around."

But if he was going to really explore church, that meant plunging in. Within a year, he'd been baptized and began asking a question he says he now thinks about constantly: How can I take the Gospel seriously?

A rite is born

Farley was among the church members involved in discussing what to do about the homeless on the landing. At first, he volunteered to wake them each morning so police officers wouldn't have to be called.

Then, one day, someone asked for a cup of coffee. So Farley went inside the church to brew some. Another day, one of the homeless men, one who most visibly wrestles with mental health issues, bought six bags of pork and beans and cereal. Boom -- a rite was established.

Many congregants saw the breakfasts as part of a broader outreach effort to the neighborhood's homeless, and the pastor has become a regular. Some neighbors were, and still are, uncomfortable with the mission.

Farley began spending every morning, including this Christmas and New Year's, with the dozen or so men and women, who live on Washington's sidewalks, under its overpasses and in its tunnels. They drink coffee, chat, pray and tease one another. Farley is fodder for the mostly older men's jokes.

"He's late, and he's already bossy," George, 48, says after Farley jogs up on the final day of 2009 and launches into his typical upbeat-but-direct urging for everyone to get their belongings together.

"You want to know about Rob? He's a tightwad," Johnson, 60, says when Farley disappears inside the church. "He's tight with money. He also only eats broccoli and cheese. Fanatic."

Folks file down the hall to the parlor, the coffee pot goes on, Farley goes downstairs to the kitchen to prepare breakfast and human beings who just spent the night outdoors in an icy rain take turns using the bathroom. Then they take their spots on brocade chairs and around a rectangular table.

"Vic, help! Rob tried to cook!" George says to a man who cooks for the group and made a huge pot of turkey sausage soup. The menu depends on donations and includes staples (coffee, Honey Nut Cheerios and baked goods from Harris Teeter) and more random items, such as the soup or sausage and eggs or whatever other volunteers make.

'What darkness lingers?'

Informal, yet refined, despite a backdrop that can only be described as savage. This is a group of mostly senior citizens fighting the elements, physical assaults, loneliness and what Larry Settle, 57, calls "a desperate desire to make sure my life isn't a waste." Breakfast is served after grace and with silverware and condiments.

Intimacy in this group comes in particular ways. Farley has washed the body of one man incapacitated by a wheelchair and the head of another wracked by lice. He has accompanied four people to detox and opened his home to some. But asked whether people talk frankly about their challenges, his answer is blunt.

"I don't, certainly," says Farley, who speaks only when pressed, and sparsely, about his own recent life-changing events: his divorce and a switch from a big corporate law firm representing employers to working for himself representing employees.

Some congregants see Farley as on the forefront of outreach ministry, although his "whys" aren't explicit.

"He's still searching, like we all are, for certain answers, but very accepting of that journey," says David Kennedy, who runs the church's Sunday meal for the homeless, which has gone from monthly to weekly in the past year.

During the New Year's Eve breakfast, Farley reads aloud a daily snippet of Scripture and a devotional message, during which the room is quiet. Sometimes the lofty language of social activism collides with basic needs of people who live outside.

"What darkness lingers in your heart as you begin the New Year? What can you do today to invite the light to shine upon you?" reads Farley, standing in his running clothes, his reading glasses perched on his nose. The chatter is replaced by a weighty pause. Until Dessaso, giggly and girly with sparkly jewelry and a jauntily tilted felt hat, breaks it.

"You never got me my mustard!" she scolds Farley. The room erupts in laughter.

By 9:30 a.m., Farley begins the process of getting people out the door. George has a gig painting furniture. Settle walks to the park across the street to feed the pigeons. Rick Jackson heads to McDonald's in an effort to stay awake. Walter Parker climbs on his bike, headed to find a dry place to sleep.

Dessaso hugs Farley. "See you tomorrow," she says.

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